High Standards

A gentleman in Alaska has sent me a copy of an exam the state of Washington required of all 8th-graders in 1910. I suspect that today many college graduates would have difficulty passing it.

All of the questions were essay, and students were graded on their ability to write as well as on penmanship. Teachers did not "teach to the test." In fact, after the tests were handed out, the teachers left, and an outsider sat in the room. Students were not allowed to ask questions, and no explanations were given.

Minimum passing grade in grammar and arithmetic was 80 percent right answers. The minimum in other areas was 60 percent, but students had to average an overall score of 80 percent. This standard is far higher than most states require for exams today.

Here, for example, is the geography test the 14-year-olds of that day were expected to pass.

  1. What causes the difference in climate between Eastern and Western Washington?
  2. Name 10 wild animals of Africa.
  3. Tell some reasons why the people of Washington are interested in the Orient.
  4. Name the five chief nations of Europe and give their capitals.
  5. Name five important cities and five products of Canada.
  6. Sketch a map of South America, locating three rivers and five capital cities.
  7. What and where are the following: Liverpool, Panama, Suez, Ural, Liberia, Quebec, Pikes Peak, Yosemite, Danube and San Diego?
  8. Name the five principal crops of the United States and tell the section where each is raised.
  9. Describe the Nile and the country through which it flows.
  10. Name the largest country of Asia, three important cities, three rivers and three important products.

That was about the easiest of the tests. One of the questions on the physiology test is: "Trace a drop of blood from the time it enters the left ventricle until it returns to its starting point, and name the different valves and principal arteries and veins through it which passes."

We should note that America in 1910 was a no-frills society. Education — real education, not its mere presence or a piece of paper saying one is educated — mattered to people in those days. Few had access to magazines; books were not all that plentiful in many small towns; and, of course, students were not bombarded with commercial entertainment.

The paradox of our time is that while we live in what is called the Information Age, we are fast becoming the Age of Ignorance. A newspaper I once worked for and that hired only college graduates became so frustrated by grammatical errors that it required every editorial employee to attend grammar classes.

I know from my days as an editor in the 1970s that most college graduates were atrocious spellers, and as for legible handwriting, forget it.

The reader who sent me a copy of the exam said it was still required in the 1920s when he took it. Schools in those days kept students at their desks for six and a half hours; there were no counselors, no extracurricular activities and no school-lunch programs. And for their parents, there was no welfare system, as hard as that might be for the modern mind to comprehend.

Politicians have reimposed mandatory tests, but these tests reflect today’s watered-down courses. In one state, students are considered to have passed if they can answer only 40 percent of the questions — which are, of course, true-false and multiple-choice questions. A monkey has a 50-50 chance of passing a true-false test.

The fundamental problem, I believe, is that true education is no longer valued, least of all by most students. Credentials, not knowledge, are the goal of the present system. That is a greater threat to America’s future than all the terrorists in the world.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.